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 American Soviet Peace Walk protests in Novgorod.

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7 ways civil society is under attack globally

13 September 2019
Author: Stacey Frier

We celebrate the International Day of Democracy on Sunday 15 September. The UN secretary-general António Guterres calls the day an opportunity to urge all governments to respect their citizens’ right to active, substantive and meaningful participation in democracy. 

His much-needed message is likely to be lost in a sea of indifference from many governments as civic space all over the world continues to shrink at an alarming rate. These governments are introducing laws, policies and practices everyday which infringe upon democratic rights and restrict civil society from acting effectively. 

So should we be commemorating our declining democracy instead of celebrating it? Here are seven trends that are restricting civil society across the world and some key considerations for NGOs. 

Civil society under attack in half of countries 

According to the Civicus Monitor, civic space is under attack in 111 countries  and only 4% of the world’s population live in countries where fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are respected and enabled. These attacks may be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, the middle east and North Africa, but more established democracies are also being affected, with Europe and the USA seeing a narrowing of their rights and freedoms. 

A range of mechanisms to limit space for civil society are used, and can include restrictive legislation and regulatory frameworks, limits on participation in policy processes, constraints on public gatherings, restrictions on access to foreign funding, stigmatisation and use of anti-CSO discourses, and the harassment and intimidation of activists.

Anti-NGO legislation, restrictions on foreign funding and national security measures

Anti-NGO legislation has been introduced in many countries, most notably in Africa where: 

  • civil society is subject to over-bureaucratic registration and reporting measures
  • funding from INGOs is limited or outlawed
  • state officials are allowed to interfere in how NGOs are run 
  • bans on working on issues seen as politically sensitive. 

A Freedom House special report documents cases these cases in Africa, showing that states often turn to national security measures to shut down civic space. The same report some small progress against these measures, such as an anti-NGO Bill in Nigeria being defeated when civil society worked together to stop it. 

Victimising journalists 

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the UK recently published evidence from journalists around the world of how they were subject to a wide and worsening array of abuses, with the ultimate threat being death. 

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a stark reminder of the dangers of calling out governments on their actions.  There are many more less publicised instances of journalists being murdered for political reasons for highlighting abuse of power.  

Populism marches on 

Over the last two years, “populism” has risen exponentially throughout the world, a political approach appealing to “ordinary people” who feel disregarded by elite groups. The most high-profile examples being the elections of Donald Trump in the USA, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the Brexit referendum in the UK. The number of populist leaders has doubled since the early 2000s, according to Team Populism, a global network of scholars. Populist leaders, with their more authoritative styles, tend to have less regard to democratic rights and freedoms. 

Civil society needs to come together with political society to better understand why people are voting for populist organisations and work to win the battle on ideas. As Rosa Balfour at the German Marshall Fund of the United States suggests, we need to offer new ideas to address inequality and insecurity about our place in society, on creating jobs in the green economy, and to connect positively with the rest of the world. This need is common in civil society across many countries. 

Rise of protest movements and the establishments’ response

In reaction to populism, we have seen more protest and social movements, such as Extinction Rebellion, #Metoo, and the yellow vests movement in France. While protest movements are nothing new, these modern movements have not emerged from traditional actors in civil society and their momentum has been greatly aided by social media. A key question for civil society is how we work with such movements to achieve its goals. 

One trend that has not changed is the tendency for governments to curtail the rights of free speech and protest – as recently seen in Hong Kong and western democracies where protesters faced injunctions and being legally “priced” out of challenging these

Attacks on excluded groups and the NGOs which fight for them

Given the rise of populist rhetoric, the trend of attacking excluded groups (such as migrants, refugees, minority ethnic and religious groups, women and LGBTQI groups) and the civil society actors that support them sees no sign of abating. Just last month, Italy further strengthened legislation to enforce stiffer penalties on NGO migrant rescue boats in the Mediterranean. 

However, it is not all bad news – civil society received a victory in Ireland last year when Irish people voted to legalise abortion following a long-running campaign. The role of citizens assemblies is now a subject of debate amongst civil society given the role Ireland’s played in the campaign.

The effect on development and response from INGOs

The excellent European Foundation Report on why shrinking civil society space matters outlines how the anti-NGO measures being introduced by many countries seriously obstructs INGOs from helping local organisations, undertaking advocacy or implementing basic service delivery. Some INGOs are pulling out of affected countries or trying to adapt their programmes to get around the restrictions. 

As the report says, without an intensive effort to push back against closing space, development interventions will become less effective at assisting those living in poverty. There is a definite need for INGOs – and international organisations – to come together, speak out and support other NGOs to push back, from better collaboration between funders to funding the families of NGO staff arrested. 
Protecting civil society space could be more proactively aligned with the SDGs, although work is starting to bring stakeholders together. The OECD DAC held a conference on closing civil society in Paris earlier this year, which Bond and other member organisations attended.

Our fighting chance 

As the rise of protest movements and small victories in Ireland and Nigeria show, there are pockets of resistance and countries that are reversing the trends of shrinking civic space and shining the light for democracy. 

We have a daunting job ahead of us. In partnership with the international community, civil society needs to continue speaking truth to power, calling out attacks and abuses, and collaborating to reverse the dangerous narrative of populism. We must push back states’ encroachment into our space. Only then can we talk about celebrating our democracy. 

Interested in joining a group working on international civic space? Contact Alice Whitehead

About the author

Stacey Frier
Bond

Stacey is Bond's policy adviser focusing on civic space and the operating environment. She supports organisations from across the development and environment sector to respond to restrictions on advocacy and campaigning in the UK.